By Rowenna Hoskin
Research suggests efforts to increase honeybee populations may be damaging our ecosystems, meaning we, as consumers of mass fertilised crops, are supporting this change.
Research shows that the honeybee is damaging the ecosystem, and by extension buying honey and mass fertilised crop products such as almonds, we as consumers are supporting this.
In recent years, the plight of the honeybee has been well versed. Media and non-governmental organisations have called out for support as the honeybee population has declined. In response private sectors and government have invested millions into reversing this loss.
Dr Jonas Geldmann from Cambridge University’s department of Zoology says:
“the past decade has seen an explosion in research on honeybee loss and the damage posed to crops. Yet little research has been done to understand wild native pollinator declines.”
Writing in the journal Science, Dr Jonas Geldmann and DR Juan P.González-Varo argue that there is a “lack of distinction” in public understanding of the dire situation. The misconception that honeybee conservation is the most important species to conserve is fuelled by misguided charity campaigns and media reports.
There are over 16,000 different species of bee, the honeybee being just one. The International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) lists 10 species of bee as Vulnerable, 9 as endangered, 7 as critically endangered and 11 as threatened. There are also over 87 species of bee with deficient data preventing an analysis.
“The crisis in global pollinator decline has been associated with one species above all, the western honeybee. Yet this is one of the few pollinator species that is continually replenished through breeding and agriculture,” says Dr Jonas Geldmann.
“Honeybees are artificially bred, agricultural animals, similar to livestock such as pigs and cows” adds his co-author, Juan P.González-Varo, an expert at the department of Zoology at Cambridge University.
The honeybee is an introduced species from Europe and is used in agriculture to produce honey and fertilise crops such as fruits, oilseed rape and borage in the UK.
A study of 50 years’ worth of data by the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation has shown a 45% increase in managed honeybee populations. The population numbers of wild bees are still rapidly declining.
Despite their obvious agricultural uses, researchers say that domesticated honeybees are directly contributing to the decline in wild bees through competition for resources, disease, and misguided environmental initiatives such as urban beekeeping – or worse yet, beekeeping in protected areas away from agriculture.
These schemes are incredibly damaging to the wild bee populations due to the reduced numbers of flowers available in a city and the fragile eco-system in both the city and nature reserves. By introducing the western honeybee into areas with reduced wildflower populations, beekeepers are directly depressing the wild pollinator populations and in turn harming the environment.
The farmed honeybee has negative impacts on the natural environment resulting from the sheer number introduced. According to the British Bee Association, one beekeeper can have 150-300 hives with each hive containing up to 30,000 honeybees. This means that one beekeeper can introduce over half a million bees into an area.
In addition to the vast quantity of the species, honeybee agricultural techniques amplify the environmental damage.
In order to improve their profit, farmers use selective breeding to create a highly effective colony. Drones are selected for their desirable traits, crushed, and then have their semen harvested for artificial insemination into the queen. This process causes the reduced genetic biodiversity of the colony, meaning that they are more susceptible to disease as they are less likely to have varied genetic mutations coding for immunity. This problem is also encountered by zoos, where legislation dictates a strict breeding program to avoid such genomic depressions. No such legislation exists in the beekeeping community.
Deformed wing virus, Tracheal mites and Varroa Destructa mites are just a few of the many diseases that honeybees are susceptible to because of selective breeding.
According to González-Varo, honeybees are:
“livestock [that] can roam beyond any enclosure to disrupt local ecosystems through competition and disease.”
When a honeybee becomes infected by disease, they not only bring it back to their hive and infect the other honeybees, but they also can transfer the disease to other species of bee. When an infected honeybee visits a flower, it leaves traces of the disease on the flower meaning that any future visitors will also become infected. In this way, disease is transferred from the farmed agricultural population of honeybees to the fragile wild bee population.
The problem is intensified by the fact that farmers take their honeybees around the country, hiring them out to fertilise different crops. The disease or parasite is then transferred all around the country, increasing the geographical spread of the disease.
Honeybees also compete with wild bees for resources. Research shows that the managed honeybee depress the wild pollinator population even in areas where the species is naturally occurring, simply due to the unnaturally high density.
Farmers use honeybees to fertilise their crops, producing a higher yield and more profit. This becomes a problem, according to González-varo because of the “spillover” from farmed honeybees into the landscape. In their study, González-Varo and Geldmann show that the honeybee populations in Spanish woodlands are up to eight times higher after the orange tree crops have finished blooming. This means that this vast number of honeybees are no longer providing agricultural use but are in fact competing with wild pollinators for nectar.
Farmed honeybees also create a negative environmental feedback loop. They are the most effective bee for agricultural uses as they return the most nectar to their hive. This can be problematic for the flowers from which they collect the nectar from as the flowers are not pollinated effectively.
According to a study by the Atlantic Food and Horticulture Research Station, the fertilisation of one blueberry flower would take a honeybee four times as long as it would take a bumblebee queen. This means that the honeybee takes the nectar from the flowers and takes away the reward for wild pollinators, meaning that the flower is visited less and is insufficiently pollinated. If flowers are not efficiently pollinated, they cannot seed meaning that they cannot reproduce.
With less wildflowers, the populations of wild pollinators decline, which in turn reduces pollination in wildflowers. This is the negative feedback loop.
“Keeping honeybees is an extractive activity. It removes pollen and nectar from the environment, which are natural resources needed by many wild species of bee and other pollinators,”
says Juan P.González-Varo.
Although honeybees are necessary to maintain agricultural demands, researchers warn that the management of this species must be improved. There must be a limit to the number of bees and colonies a farmer can introduce into an area or the ecosystem may collapse.
With messages from experts and mass campaigns varying to such an extent, it can be confusing to know how to help. Upon reflection, rather than creating your own beekeeping scheme or buying honey, it is much better to plant flowers or create a bee hotel. By increasing the flower density and providing a home for bees, you will be reducing the strain on the wild population and providing support for all species of bee.